Firstly, let me declare that I love the US National Parks (NPs)! Ever since we did a road trip some 20 years ago that took us to Zyon, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Monument Valley (OK the last 2 are not technically National Parks, I know), I have wanted to explore more and more of the US wilderness areas.
The US National Parks Service, in my view, does a great job balancing the multiple and often competing priorities of maintaining these areas. It allows for mass tourism but also ensures the wilderness areas are just that; free of crowds, and amenities, allowing people to get up close and personal with nature.
Over the years, I have returned many times to the US to explore more and more of the NP’s. I must also say that if you visit a NP, look around for a nearby State Park, they are often as spectacular, but smaller and less visited than their grander cousins.
Before I begin describing the walk in Bryce Canyon NP, I wanted to share tips for enjoying your visit. I should also say that I have only visited during peak summer times due to my wife being a teacher, so outside of the peak season, these tips may not be entirely relevant.
- Book any accommodation, especially in the park, well in advance. Generally as soon as booking opens I have reserved accommodation. We have stayed in hotels in the park and whilst OK, you are still in a hotel. Much better, in my view, is to rent a house nearby. This gives you freedom, comfort and tranquillity that a busy hotel cannot.
- Ensure you have plenty of water, food and fuel. You are in the wilderness, which is easy to forget. Also this makes you less dependent on stopping at the food outlets, which can get crazy busy in peak season.
- Get into the park early. It seems to me that the parks start to busy up after breakfast, say 9.30 onwards, so if you get in early enough you can have the park and the best light for photography to yourselves.
- Plan your visit and go to the point furthest from the park entrance first. I don’t know why, but it seems everyone stops either at the first trail head or the NP Visitor Centre and mills around there for awhile. If you get to the end of the park, and then work backwards you get the trail heads and panoramic views to yourself. If you are out for a day hike, you get a start on people and get the cool of the day
- Go back into the park in the late afternoon/early evening – again the light is generally better for photography and the places are much less crowded. Stay past sunset and look at the stars in an unpolluted sky. This is an unforgettable experience
- Try and listen to a Ranger talk. The Rangers are passionate about the park and have deep knowledge of flora and fauna and what you can see when.
Now onto Bryce.
We first visited Bryce some years ago when we were staying at Zyon. Its a 2-3 hour trip and Bryce is perfect for a day visit. The scenic drive is on top of the canyon at between 8000 and 10000 feet and gets you to 13 scenic overviews of the famous Bryce Amphitheatres. But we did notice some enticing day walks and promised we would return one day and do some of these walk
On our return visit n 2019, we stayed in the small town of Tropic some 10 minutes drive from the park entrance. We rented a very nice house for much less than a stay in or near the park hotels. Tropic had enough amenities -grocery store, restaurants etc. to meet our needs.
Just outside Tropic, on the way to the park is a short (1 mile) hike called “Mossy caves”. This is worth doing as you are in the bottom of Bryce Canyon, looking up and seeing the Hoodoos from a different perspective. A Hoodoo is described as a slender and tall spire of rock protruding from the base of an arid drainage basin or badland. They are also called fairy chimneys, tent rocks, or earth pyramids and can be found in different regions of the world
From 1890-1892 Mormon pioneers laboured with picks and shovels to carve an irrigation ditch from the East Fork of the Sevier River, through the Paunsaugunt Plateau, into this canyon. Every year since its completion in 1892 (except during the drought of 2002), this canal known as the Tropic Ditch has supplied the communities of Tropic and Cannonville with irrigation water.
This walk is ca 1 mile round trip. The Mossy Cave is not a cavern but a shelter cave created by an underground spring. In summer you will find a large overhang filled with moss, in winter, apparently, giant icicles. Due to the presence of water you can see plants more associated with mountain meadows such as Mountain Death Camas and Watson Bog Orchid.
As you enter Bryce Canyon make for the Canyon Lodge parking area and walk to the start of the trail at Sunrise Point.
The walk we did was not especially long – ca 5 miles, but given the starting altitude of ca 8000 feet, the heat and also the 700 feet descent/ascent, it does make for a challenging hike. Be prepared – good footwear, plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat are all advisable if doing this in the summer.
We followed the “Queen’s Garden Trail” and descended down a well made zig zag path towards Queen Victoria. Even though we started early the trail head was quite busy, but very quickly we lost the crowds and descended into an “otherworldly” landscape, quiet and ethereal. The early start meant we enjoyed the sun rising over Bryce giving constantly changing colours and contrasts.
The views over the edges into the Amphitheatres are breath taking and offer panoramic views over Utah towards Grand Staircase-Escalante NP
As we left Queen Victoria, I confess I couldn’t see her head, you continue a descent into sub-alpine fir forests with bristlecone pines and yet more expansive views. The smell of pine and the hot dust from the trail was quite intoxicating.
You then have a choice of routes back to Sunset point; Navajo Loop or Wall Street. We choose Wall Street a spectacular slot canyon. The beginning of the ascent was in cool shade, which was quite welcome, but also slightly overwhelming. We then moved onto a series of switchbacks as we climbed up and up towards the plateau of Bryce.
Whilst it can be a personal challenge to do the ascent in one go, it is worth stopping now and then and admiring the changing views around you as you emerge from Wall Street.
Back at the top, we had a quick rest stop and visited the Park Centre to pick up our “I’ve Hiked The Hoodoos” badges and stickers. We then split up, half the party took the car back to Tropic, the other half decided to walk back, down via Navajo trail, through Bryce Canyon’s “wilderness area.”
This 6 mile walk took us through sparse forest and past distant cliffs of hoodoos. Turning round often I was able to appreciate the splendour of the Hoodoos as I gradually descended towards Tropic.
We emerged from the forest onto a dirt road. This made for easy navigation back to Tropic and again offered different views of the area.
We also found examples of what seems a national past time in rural USA, shooting road signs!
We were hot and dusty by the time we arrived at our home and I enjoyed a cold beer, laying on a hammock watching the Humming Birds and Jays in the garden. I wasn’t at all sure about the Vultures in the trees on the hill above me, though!
We only made time on this trip for a full day in Bryce, which is a shame as there is plenty of day hikes – I particularly want to do “Fairy Lands” and the “Rim Trail”.
Ah well, there is always next time.